A Deep Cut
Losing a job is deeply distressing at any time, because the work we do defines who we are. Yet even if you got a raw deal or are mired in shame, it need not limit who you can be.
By Psychology Today Contributors published November 3, 2020 - last reviewed on November 5, 2020
The loss of a job is never a happy event, and the pandemic has compounded the burden, obliterating 22 million posts all across the economy. Forecasters estimate that up to half are gone for good. Having work is more than a financial necessity; it furnishes purpose and structure in life, undergirding mental health. For that reason, PT asked four experts to chart a constructive course through the crisis of job loss.
Furloughed. Fired. Fractured.
By Kristen Fuller, M.D.
What do you do for a living? It’s one of the questions Americans most commonly ask when meeting a new person.
Our jobs are not only tied to our financial and educational status but also often define who we are, or at least that is the way our society views the relationship between job title and person. Of course, as humans we are so much more than our job title; we are people of passion and character with real feelings and emotions beyond our professional work realm. We are friends, parents, daughters and sons, lovers, explorers, caretakers, and leaders. Even if we refuse to allow our work to define us, a job is not just a job for many people.
Beyond providing a way to pay bills, take care of those we love, and fund leisure activities, work delivers a sense of purpose, a connection to others, a role in society, and a rhythm to life. Our work is closely tied to our sense of pride and belonging. To be without a job is to lose not just a paycheck but also a routine that organizes life, a source of meaning and mattering, a sense of self-worth, security, connection to others, and for many, access to health care.
For months now, COVID-19 has fractured the economy and stripped millions of individuals of their jobs. Because so many are deprived of a source of their identity, they are grappling with the devastating mental and emotional effects of job loss—depression, hopelessness about the future, loneliness, and financial stress.
Since the Great Depression, mental health experts have been chronicling the ways that unemployment damages mental health and undermines the social fabric of society. Involuntary joblessness can elicit feelings of helplessness, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Who am I if I cannot take care of my family and myself? Who are we if we cannot put food on the table?
The pandemic adds its own psychological insult to the injury of job loss and financial adversity. No one knows what life will be like after COVID-19, and so the uncertainty breeds anxiety. The discomfort of anxiety is meant to serve as a spur to action, but most people are mandated to do nothing—to stay home and remain there. As if the consequences of job loss were not enough, fear of the virus itself, collective grief over so many losses, and the prolonged isolation imposed by social distancing compound the impact on the psyche, individually and collectively.
Everyone is at risk. The economic crash affects everyone, regardless of job or income. Layoffs have occurred across the board from blue-collar workers and health care professionals to white-collar executives. Budget cuts are being made in nearly every industry because of the interrupted economy. Many small businesses have been forced to shut their doors, leaving business owners as well as employees to struggle to pay bills.
Many highly educated and highly skilled individuals are unable to find jobs because the economy is closed. Very few sectors are hiring. The only option is to keep searching and wait this out…but for how long?
Individuals who take pride in their work and find their work purposeful and meaningful are often hit the hardest when they are out of a job, as their job provided a sense of accomplishment, self-efficacy, and hope, as well as a paycheck. They may find themselves the most challenged to muster the passion and drive to find new work. And especially for those who have been in the same career for years or pursued many years of education to qualify for their current job, work is tightly bound to identity and purpose. As job loss shatters a sense of self, the effects ripple outward.
What will our family or friends think of me? Will others see me as a failure?
Feeling ashamed or embarrassed, the involuntarily jobless are less likely to socialize with friends and family. The resulting isolation leads to depression, which leads to more isolation and deeper depression. It is hard for many to socialize with friends who are gainfully employed when one is struggling to find any job leads.
Studies show that unemployment is highly linked to suicide. In 2008, the Great Recession ushered in a 13 percent increase in suicides attributable to unemployment, with over 46,000 lives lost worldwide that year alone. Unfortunately, unemployed means uninsured, leaving those at highest risk for suicide unable to afford mental health treatment.
When you lose a job, you also lose a community. We spend so much of our time at work that we naturally develop relationships in the workplace, which becomes a substitute community center. It provides a major arena for solving a problem that often accompanies adulthood in America—the opportunity to make new friends. Losing a work family feeds isolation and loneliness, major contributors not just to depression and anxiety but to substance use disorders as well.
The job loss of one person can heavily strain a relationship or marriage. Spouses may blame each other for not cutting back on spending, not going back to work promptly, or not planning for the financial future. The blame can manifest as anger or fester in increased alcohol intake, fueling spousal arguments, even domestic violence. The increased financial pressure due to unemployment can undermine intimacy, create a palpable rift in the relationship, and exacerbate shame and loneliness between the partners. Children absorb the stress and manifest it both directly and indirectly—in problems at school, aggressive behavior, and regression (acting out, bedwetting).
The free time that unemployment brings usually comes at the high cost of extreme stress, both financially and emotionally. To escape the dark reality of lack of routine and structure, unemployed adults are more likely than the employed to abuse alcohol or illicit drugs. Such use can quickly spiral into addiction.
Regardless of employment status, we all have the job of maintaining our mental health. Perhaps the first task of those without work is to recognize that we cannot blame ourselves for losing a job to COVID-19.There are many other steps to take as well.
It is wise to develop a daily routine. Adopting a regular sleep/wake cycle and a daily exercise routine, taking time each day to cultivate a new skill or work on a new project, nourishing your body with whole foods, and spending at least 30 minutes a day outside can counter the boredom, feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and depression that unemployment brings.
Do not obsess over the job search. A first instinct after job loss is to pour every ounce of time and energy into looking for work. Instead, allocate some time each day or every few days to search for new opportunities, update your résumé, create cover letters, and network with potential connections.
Get your finances in order. Saving money now will help ease the mental burden of unemployment. Even if your unemployment insurance covers your monthly bills, look hard at any unnecessary spending. Now is your time to figure out how to live a simpler life.
Absorbing the Blow
By James Pennebaker, Ph.D.
The loss of a job usually sets off a huge emotional upheaval. In the 1990s, our research team studied a large group of senior engineers who were unexpectedly laid off. The layoff meant different things beyond just losing a paycheck, health insurance, and a place to work. Many admitted that it was humiliating and soul crushing. It often led to family disruption, separation, or divorce. Common side effects included sleepless nights, constant anxiety, higher rates of substance abuse, illness and injury, and the loss of friendships.
For some, it was an opportunity to take up new hobbies, fall in love, and explore alternative careers. For everyone, however, life was disrupted. They all had to start over.
The most important tool for restarting their lives proved to be a pen. Our group found that spending a short amount of time expressively writing about the experience helped them get back on their feet quickly.
Since then, there have been hundreds of studies showing that writing about emotional upheavals can improve peoples’ mental and physical health. It can even help them land a job more quickly. Expressive writing for only 15 minutes a day for three days is enough to get measurable benefits.
In that first study, by a flip of a coin, half the people were assigned to write about “their deepest thoughts and feelings about getting laid off” for 30 minutes a day for five continuous days. The other half were not given the writing assignment. Many of the engineers didn’t want to write about their emotions. But once they started, they addressed those issues that had been haunting them.
The study had profound effects on the expressive writing participants. Within days, they reported feeling happier and healthier. Within six months, over half had new jobs (at higher pay), compared to only 20 percent of control participants. They had all gone on the same number of interviews, but only the expressive writing people were hired.
Why does writing about losing a job help? Studies point to several overlapping reasons. In the wake of a layoff, people’s minds are working feverishly, trying to understand why it happened, how they will cope, and how they will find another job.
By writing about the job loss, they begin to organize and simplify their thoughts. Merely labeling and applying some structure to the experience can help us to understand and find some meaning.
Several studies show that after writing, people ruminate less about upheavals. They sleep better, are less distracted, and more emotionally stable. They also have more fulfilling relationships with others, probably because they are less obsessed with their own problems. Writing stills the mind.
In our study, we worked with engineers who would often be interviewed for new jobs for several hours on multiple occasions. These interviews could be grueling and exhausting. Those who had written about the layoff were likely more comfortable in their own skins about what had happened. In the interviews, they came across as more stable and less angry than candidates who had not been in the expressive writing group.
Will expressive writing work for you? Maybe, maybe not. The good news is that it’s free and no one but you should read it. Try it out and see if it makes a difference. In the meantime, here are a few tips:
Set aside 15 to 30 minutes a day for at least three days. Find a place where you won’t be disturbed.
During those 15 to 30 minutes, really let go and explore your deepest thoughts and feelings about your job loss. How are you feeling and why do you think you are feeling the way you are? How is this experience like others you have had in your life? How might it be related to earlier life experiences, your relationships with your family and friends, or other jobs you have had? How might it tie into who you’ve been in the past, who you are now, or who you would like to become in the future? You can write about the same or different issues each day.
Write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or making sense. If you run out of things to say, just repeat what you’ve written.
You can write by hand, on a keyboard, or even with your finger in the air. The goal is to translate your thoughts and emotions into words. Plan to throw your writing away afterwards. You can keep it if you want but, remember, it is only for you.
If, after you have started, you want to write more than 30 minutes, do so. If you want to write for more than three days, do so.
If you find that writing is making you feel much worse and you don’t see any value, then stop writing. Only you can judge if it is beneficial. Also, if writing isn’t helpful, consider talking with a therapist or taking up exercises such as yoga or meditation.
A Question of Courage
By Nick Tasler
When you casually say I’m an accountant or I’m a bartender or I’m in sales, you aren’t just explaining what you do. You are explaining who you are. It is a crude socioeconomic measuring stick, a single-item personality test, a justification for your existence. I work, therefore I am.
While unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and parents’ basements can reduce the economic threat of job loss, they fail to soothe the existential threat. But when job loss happens, we are forced to make a choice. We can choose to bounce back, as folk wisdom suggests, or we can choose to do what at least one in three people have always instinctively done in the wake of every inexplicable twist of fate known to our species: Instead of bouncing back, we can choose to step forward.
In a longitudinal field study in the 1970s and ’80s, psychologist Salvatore Maddi and his team at the University of Chicago studied the employees of the Illinois Bell phone company before, during, and after deregulation. In a matter of months, nearly half of the phone company’s workers found themselves unemployed. While many of the newly jobless workers experienced the telltale signs of severe stress, including addiction, marital troubles, and heart problems, many others remained healthy, physically and mentally. Those who successfully adapted exhibited what Maddi calls “existential courage.”
When an unwanted event like the loss of a job happens, human brains are wired to ask the question: What does this mean? Our minds launch a full-scale search for answers to resolve our anxiety and confusion. But we don’t all look in the same place.
Roxane Cohen Silver at the University of California-Irvine discovered that two out of three grieving widows, bereaved parents, and victims of terrorism, child abuse, and natural disasters, will instinctively look for meaning in the past. They try to find some explanation for their suffering. For decades, psychologists assumed that this was a universal reaction in the wake of traumatic change and that, therefore, the path to healing required finding an explanation.
But they were wrong. In study after study over the past three decades, Silver has found that a remarkably consistent one out of three trauma victims will not search for a reason to explain why they are experiencing misfortune. And it is this one third who turn out to be the best adjusted—weeks, months, and years later.
When many of the employees at Illinois Bell looked around and saw nothing but thick fog in every direction, they did what most of us instinctively do when we get lost. They retraced their steps. They obsessively searched for a reason why this calamity had befallen them.
But those who eventually summoned their existential courage began to ask a different question. Rather than trying to make sense of what they had done to deserve this experience, they tried to make sense of what they could do to craft a meaningful response now that these events had occurred.
Existential courage is a decision. It is a decision every human being can make. Instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, existential courage turns that timeless riddle on its head and inspires us to ask: What can good people do when bad things happen? It doesn’t require an employer or a pay stub or financial security. It has nothing to do with half-full or half-empty cups.
All it takes is a decision. It is a decision to accept our present reality while refusing to be defeated by it.
In spite of the raw deal we think we were given or the nagging shame about what we could have done differently, we are always free to start choosing the future over the past. Any time we choose to, we can decide to use the experience of job loss as a springboard for rising above that limited definition of who we used to be, and start growing into the friend, the parent, the partner, the neighbor, or the human being we can still become.
A simple way to get your adaptive juices flowing is by tapping into the immense power of psychological distancing. Imagine yourself in five to 10 years. Now, imagine yourself talking to a younger friend or a child, recounting the story of how you responded during this season.
Do you want to tell an inspiring story of a gritty hero who refused to give up long after others expected her to? Maybe you’d prefer a saga about a clever protagonist who kept outwitting his circumstances? Or perhaps you'd like a comedy featuring a character who endured a year of hilarious mishaps on the way to a delightfully unexpected happy ending? Whichever story you want to tell in the future, you are free to start living that tale today.
What Works in Getting Work
By Marty Nemko, Ph.D.
If you’re unemployed or underemployed, these can be scary times. The following suggestions have helped my clients and should help you.
Frame your mind right. Try to suppress the fear. Otherwise, it may convey your desperation to employers and networking contacts. Sure, in an ideal world, employers would give a plus to the needy, but in the real world, it will more likely hurt your chances. So, the first moment that a negative thought distracts you from your next baby step forward, say, literally, Stop! and force yourself, yes force yourself, to get back to that baby step.
It may also help to recognize that while the media hype the job losses, the truth is that the unemployment rate is around 10 percent, which means that, of people who want to work, 90 percent have jobs. You can be one of them, especially if you use these ahead-of-the-pack tactics. One size doesn’t fit all, so pick and choose from this buffet of ideas. And keep an experimental mindset: If one idea ends up not working for you, try another.
Target your search.
Focus on the jobs and fields that are at the intersection of your abilities and the job market. In more halcyon times, you might have had the luxury to try, simply, to “follow your passion.” But these days, unless you’re unusually talented, well-employed, dogged, and lucky, try to do what you love and the money won’t follow.
Why? Because most people’s passion resides in just a few areas: notably the arts, the environment, sports, and nonprofit do-gooding. So the competition for jobs that pay more than McWages is fierce. And in the COVID-19 economy, in such fields, you’d have to accept some pretty long odds to try to get a good job, or even a volunteer gig.
You might focus on psychology-related trends that actually benefit from COVID-19. Today’s economic stress, health fears, perhaps the quarantine-15 weight gain, the political/racial tensions, and couples’ being forced to spend more time together can be a perfect storm for creating relationship malaise and, in turn, a need for you, the relationship counselor. The racial roiling following the George Floyd killing, which has reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, is motivating employers to spend more on diversity initiatives, from hiring to training to resolving race-related disputes.
Anxiety and stress counseling holds other opportunities. The COVID-19 lockdown atop the political and racial pressures is taking a toll on many people’s mental health. Could you specialize in that and emphasize that in applications to university counseling departments, employee assistance programs, or in marketing yourself as a self-employed counselor?
Assertive job-search tactics give you an edge over the typical job seeker, who simply answers ads with a cliché- and jargon-filled résumé, LinkedIn profile, and cover letter.
Include a white paper. A way to establish that you have relevant knowledge is to write a few pages, like the papers you wrote in college. Sample psychology-related topics: 5 keys to managing diversity and inclusion in 2021 and beyond, best practices in fundraising for 2021 and beyond, and what’s new in eating disorders counseling.
Most job seekers reach out to a few close connections, but the odds are small that one of just a few people will provide a lead that turns into a job before the job seeker has given up or run out of money. So it’s wise to reach out to your extended network—perhaps 20 or 30 people.
To keep track, create a chart or spreadsheet showing 1) the name and wisest way to contact each, 2) whether to make your “ask” during that first contact or to set up an in-person meeting, perhaps socially distanced at an outdoor café or taking a walk, 3) the results of your ask, 4) when to follow up, 5) notes on your meeting—perhaps it’s something you promise to do to help them, a shared area of concern or happiness, or something else.
If, as is the norm, your contacts don’t have a lead for you at that time, ask, “If in a month I’m still looking, would you mind if I circle back?” They’ll usually say yes, and now you’ve recruited scouts. True, they probably won’t beat the bushes for you, but it’s reasonably likely that at some point in the next month, they’ll think or hear of something.
Do cold contact.
Of course, when cold-calling/emailing, your success rate will be low, but you need only one. It’s usually worth the time to find people with the power to hire you and send a crisp email or voicemail.
For example: I’ve been a successful X but laid off amid COVID-19. My employer has particularly praised me for Y and Z. I’m wondering if I might be of help to you. If that’s a possibility, I’ll welcome a call or email.
While you’re waiting for your job-search efforts to bear fruit, consider upskilling: We are living not just in the
COVID-19 era but in the era of proliferating online courses. You might upskill with a tutor and/or by taking top-rated short courses taught by master practitioners on LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, Udacity, or Coursera.
Make age a non-issue.
Yes, there’s ageism. But it often can be countered by targeting fields in which age is a plus. Of course, there’s the obvious, such as working in a senior community in sales, as an activities director, or even managing the cafeteria.
Perhaps less obvious is selling big-ticket items. Older people often have enough money to afford them and prefer to deal with someone with a gray hair or two. Think: commercial real estate, airplane leases, luxury cars, vacation homes. Then there’s the nonprofit analogue to sales: fundraising.
No matter the job, if true, sell your age as a plus—that your experience and Rolodex will make you more valuable, and that you’re in good health so you might need less time off than a person who is in fact younger.
By choice or not, many people are trying their hand at self-employment. Especially if it’s your first time at it, keep it simple and low cost: something you can run from home, perhaps a service rather than a product so you needn’t have inventory. A pandemic-friendly example: On Zoom, be a home-office consultant, teaching your clients everything from ergonomics to how to do well in a virtual meeting to how to keep family and other distractions from being too intrusive.
Get and stay motivated.
It’s easy for un- or underemployed people to feel sorry for themselves. But my clients have found that the best antidote is hope. Take baby steps on any of the offered ideas and you have legitimate basis for optimism.
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